Letter To My Class On the Secret to Happiness

In my class "Psychology and Christianity" at ACU I give a lecture on the ideas from my book The Slavery of Death regarding the "eccentric identity" (a phrase I borrow from David Kelsey). I half-jokingly call this lecture "the secret of happiness lecture."

Anyway, last semester after giving the "secret to happiness lecture" I followed up with a letter to my class to underscore the big ideas. Below is the letter I sent the class, a sort of summary of some of the big ideas in The Slavery of Death:
Hello Class,
Still cold and rainy out there, I hope you are staying warm!

Next week we'll pick up again on the "secret to happiness" lecture. If you haven't noticed, that secret is something I think about a lot. I take this subject pretty seriously. It's no joke that in this conversation I think we are close to Ground Zero when it comes to the roots of mental health.

All that to say, I've been thinking some more about all this and wanted to jot down some ideas and pass those along.

The heart of what I was trying to describe boils down to this choice:

You are either going to have to earn and perform for your self-esteem/significance/worth in life, or you're going to accept your significance and worth as a gift of grace.

Truly, I think receiving your worth as a gift of grace is the only way to escape the neurotic trap that 99.99% of the world finds itself caught up in.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is that self-esteem isn't a psychological problem, it's a religious problem.

If self-esteem is a psychological problem we have to fight for and secure our worth through the eyes and opinions of others. Do they like me? Do they approve of me? Am I a failure? Am I successful? This psychological pursuit of self-esteem is, I don't know if you've noticed, doomed to being a neurotic roller-coaster ride, your worth and significance going up and down and up and down, depending upon the day and the moment, the acceptance or the rejection, the success or the failure.

By contrast, if self-esteem is solved religiously, rather than psychologically, if I come to accept myself and see myself as God's "beloved," receiving this as a sheer act of grace, as a gift, then my worth/significance becomes "hidden in Christ" (Col. 3.3) and is extracted from the neurotic ups and downs of approval and failure. In the words of Jesus, your identity is now located in heaven, "where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." When self-esteem is secured religiously, received as an act of grace, nothing can ever hurt or diminish your worth, nothing can be lost. Grace liberates you from the neurotic trap. Psychologically, you've been set free. You've become the rarest thing in the entire world: A non-anxious, non-neurotic human being. And as best I can tell, that's what it would have felt like to be inside Jesus' head.

Now, of course this is more easily said than lived. It takes a lifetime to live into grace. I'm not suggesting that the "secret to happiness" is easy or effortless. For myself, this choice between neurosis and grace is a choice I don't make once for all. I make over and over again, moment by moment, breath after breath, heartbeat to heartbeat. You have to keep receiving grace, over and over. The discipline here is one of memory: Remember who you are.

And while it is hard, this is, as best I can tell, the secret to happiness. This is the truth. And if you don't believe me, observe yourself. Watch the roller-coaster ride of your worth from this day forward. Notice when the dips hit you--those seasons of rejection and failure--and note how you've been playing the neurotic game, trying to secure worth by performing for others, trying to demonstrate to the world why you are worthy of attention, love and belonging.

And then reflect, if you've ever experienced it, when you've let grace cover your shame and failure, when you've felt, if only for a moment, the Voice of Heaven say, "You are my beloved child, in you I am well pleased." Recall in that experience--remember those four marks of a mystical experience!--the peace, courage, and joy. That is what I mean when I say that the problem of self-esteem can only be solved religiously.

Ponder that contrast in your own life--neurosis vs grace--when you've experienced each.

As best as I can tell, pondering that choice gets you very, very close to the secret of happiness.

Grace and peace,

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